Willian’s starring role propels Chelsea to knockout stages as Conte fumes over fixture list
Qarabag 0 Chelsea 4
Head coach Antonio Conte praised the character of his Chelsea players after securing Champions League qualification with a 4-0 Group C win at Qarabag.
Chelsea ensured their longest Champions League journey — it is almost 2,500 miles between London and Baku, Azerbaijan — was worthwhile by qualifying ahead of next month’s clash with Atletico Madrid.
Willian scored twice and was fouled for two penalties, scored by Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas, against 10-man Qarabag as the Blues warmed up for Saturday’s Premier League trip to Liverpool.
Conte was fuming after the 3-0 loss at Roma which left Chelsea’s Champions League status in the balance, but was pleased with the response.
“This group is showing great character,” Conte said.
“From the start we faced a lot of problems this season. Our answer was positive, almost always positive. For sure, the second half against Roma was bad.
“These players show me every day great commitment, great will, desire to fight.
“We are a really good squad. There is a great compactness between us. I think it will be very important for the present and the future.”
Conte repeated his complaints about the Premier League fixture schedule, which means his staff have already begun preparing for Anfield and were planning to continue to do so on the five-and-a-half-hour overnight flight back to London.
The Italian added: “We have to work during the flight, to prepare the game against Liverpool.
“To have only one day to rest and only one day to prepare this big game is not simple, is not easy. It’s not right.
“I don’t want to make excuses, but this is the reality.
“Also, when people hear the complaints of the coach, also someone has to help us — the press, the TV, to underline this strange situation.”
Securing their place in the knockout stages with one match remaining means Conte can rotate his options against Atletico next month.
He added: “To avoid Atletico’s game becoming decisive for us is very important. It will be a good chance to have another rotation.”
Conte was reluctant to single out any one player, despite Willian’s decisive performance.
“I did many rotations. To see every single player answer very well for me is great,” he added.
“Willian, to score two goals, is great for him, for his confidence, is great for the team.”
There was some dispute over the first penalty, converted by Hazard after 21 minutes, as Qarabag captain Rashad Sadygov was sent off for a foul on Willian.
Willian said: “Was it a penalty? A little bit of contact. For me it was a penalty — I don’t think for you guys it is, but for me it was a penalty. I’m happy to score two goals. We deserved to win.”
Qarabag boss Gurban Gurbanov’s main frustration was at a double punishment.
Gurbanov said: “I was mainly against the red card. Maybe if we were not a small country or small team the decision would’ve been different.
“Chelsea didn’t need this red card. The decision was a bit harsh.”
Qarabag: Sehic, Medvedev, Sadygov, Rzezniczak, Agolli, Guerrier (Yunuszadze, 81 mins), Almeida, Garayev, Madatov (Diniyev, 46 mins), Michel, Ndlovu (Quintana, 85 mins). Unused subs: Kanibolotskiy, Amirguliyev, Ismayilov, Sheydaev.
Chelsea: Courtois, Azpilicueta, Luiz, Rudiger, Zappacosta, Fabregas, Kante (Drinkwater, 75 mins), Willian, Alonso (Cahill, 58 mins), Pedro, Hazard (Morata, 65 mins). Unused subs: Caballero, Bakayoko, Christensen, Sterling.
Man of the match: Willian
Match rating: 7/10
Referee: Manuel De Sousa (Lisbon)